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Squats 101: Everything You Need To Know

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Shannon Clark

If you’re a serious lifter, you know very well that squats are a cornerstone in a good workout routine. You simply can’t build a comprehensive lower body workout without having the squat (or some variation of it) added to your arsenal.

When it comes to squatting, it isn’t as simple as a walk in, load up the bar, and squat. There are some key tips and techniques that you must remember to fully reap the benefits this powerful exercise has to offer. 

Let’s take a quick look at the benefits of squats and then give you a breakdown of how to perform them correctly, tips to remember, and a routine to get you started.

Benefits Of Squatting

The benefits of squats cannot be stated enough. First, because this is a compound exercise utilizing so many different muscle groups, you’re going to get an excellent metabolic response from each and every rep you perform. You’ll not only burn major calories while squatting but also torch calories for hours after your workout is finished.

Second, squats can also serve as a great cardiovascular workout. One set of 15 or more reps will elevate your heart and breathing rates, and work up a good sweat. A few of these sets back to back with short rest breaks could easily serve as a muscle activating high-intensity interval cardio workout.

Third, squats are a major strength building exercise. Lifting with lower reps and heavier weight, you’ll notice your strength dramatically increases. Additionally, the squat targets so many different muscles in the body, including your quads, hamstrings, glutes, lower back, upper back, core, and even the shoulders to some degree as they work to balance the bar. It’s a total body exercise that is sure to increase your strength, which will improve all the other lifts in your program.

Finally, squats are great for building up your mental strength and tenacity. Why do you think so many guys skip squats in the gym? They’re a brutally tough exercise. If you can make it through an intense squat session, you can make it through anything. 

Anatomy Of The Squat

There are some key points to know and remember when performing your squat. Let’s break down the main focal points to consider.

Foot Placement

First, consider your foot placement. There is no ‘right’ way to stand when doing a squat but rather, it depends on your own biomechanics and what feels right to you. 

Some people like to take a slightly wider stance when squatting, while others will adopt a more narrow foot position. Note that the wider the stance is, the more it’ll work your hamstrings and glutes, while a narrow stance will target your quads. Additionally, research found that the narrow stance squat recruits the gastrocnemius more than the wide stance squat does. If calf growth is your goal, this might be important to note.

Another aspect of foot position is the angle they point. Compared to having your feet parallel to each other, slightly turning the feet out places more emphasis on the glute and hamstring muscles.

Regardless of where your feet are positioned, you want to ensure that your knees are moving over the toes and not buckling inwards. If they aren’t tracking properly, this lead to serious knee pain, so beware of this as you execute each rep.

Bar Placement

A factor which is often overlooked is the placement of the bar on your back. For traditional squats, the bar should be placed higher up on the back just below the base of the neck where it meets the shoulder blades.

For low bar squats, which are going to put more emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings, the bar will be positioned lower than that, resting directly across the middle of the shoulder blades. 

Finally, for front squats, which really target your quads, the bar will be placed across the front of your body at the collarbone. Your hands will secure the bar by positioning them on the shoulders, rather than out to the sides along the bar.

Head and Back Position

Finally, you need to pay attention to your head and body position. The squat with the most upright position of the upper body is the front squat, where you might even think of leaning back ever so slightly. Note that you won’t lean back as the weight will pull you forward. Finding your balance between these two will help you maintain that maximized upright position.

For the traditional back squat, the head should look forward, even gently upwards and you’ll want to focus on maintaining an upright, straight position with your back. A very slight bend at the waist is permitted, however, you shouldn’t need to lean forward.

Finally, for the low bar squat, you’ll adopt the most forward position. Again, you shouldn’t be leaning over, but you will notice that due to the positioning of the bar and hips, you are more bent at the hips than you are in a regular back squat. Your back should still maintain its straight, strong position throughout. 

A Note On Rest Periods

Keep in mind that the duration of the rest periods you take should vary based on the overall goal for the program. If your primary goal is fat loss, shorter rest periods will elicit a greater metabolic response.

On the other hand, if your goal is maximum strength building and you’re focusing on one-rep max sets, you’ll see optimized results using rest periods of at least two minutes. These longer rest periods allow your body to recover from the exertion, so you can put maximal effort into each set.

Squat How-To’s

Here are some basic steps in executing a traditional squat.
  1. Position yourself with the bar across your back, hands out to the side slightly wider than shoulder width apart, grasping the bar with an overhand grip.
  2. Lift the weight up off the rack by straightening the knees. Take a few steps back while still staying within the safety bars of the squat rack.
  3. Position your feet so they are slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes pointing forward or slightly outward.
  4. Take a deep breath in and hold it.
  5. Keeping your intra-abdominal pressure intact, bend at the knees first and then as you lower, break at the hips to assume the squat position.
  6. Lower yourself until you are all the way down and then begin your ascent by pressing up through the quads and hamstrings. Note that your heels should never come off the floor throughout the exercise.
  7. As you press up, release your breath and come to a full standing position to complete the rep.
  8. Breathe in once again and move into your next rep. 

All the other squat movements will follow this same sequence of execution with the following notable exceptions: 

Sumo Squats

Focus on taking a wider stance with the feet and turning the toes out to a greater degree. You will also likely not lower quite as far down in this movement.

Low Bar Squats

Position the bar lower on your back and adopt a slightly more forward lean at the hips as you lower yourself down. You’ll also notice that you don’t go quite as far down in this movement as well. 

Front Squats

Position the bar in front of the body with the wrists flicked under the bar holding it using an underhand grip. The elbows should be pointing directly out in front of the body with the hands at shoulder width apart. 

If you can keep these basic alterations in mind, you should be able to perform whichever variation you choose correctly.

A Sample Squatting Routine

5-minute warm-up (light cardio, or range of motion stretches)

Bodyweight warm-up set: 10 reps

Bar warm-up set: 10 reps

3 build-up sets: 8 reps each (progressively add more weight to the bar until you are at your max set)

Max Set: 1-5 reps

Finishing Set: 20 reps (adjust weight as necessary to get to this rep range)

After completing your sets of squats, continue with the rest of your workout. It’s strongly suggested to complete squats early in your training session when your energy is highest and your body hasn’t fatigued, especially if you’re looking to improve your strength.

Squats are one of the most physically taxing exercises which can take practice to perfect. Work on your technique to ensure you get the most out of them, building a strong lower body. 

References:

Kushner, A.M., Brent, J.L., Schoenfeld, B.J., Hugentobler, J., Lloyd, R.S., Vermeil, A., Chu, D.A., Harbin, J., McGill, S.M., & Myer, G.D. (2015). The back squat part 2: Targeted training techniques to correct functional deficits and technical factors that limit performance. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 37(2), 13-60.

Martorelli, A., Bottaro, M., Vieira, A., Rocha-Junior, V., Cadore, E., Prestes, J., Wagner, D., & Martorelli, S. (2015). Neuromuscular and blood lactate responses to squat power training with different rest intervals between sets. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 14(2), 269-275.


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